Awaiting the Exodus

T

hree years ago, a Pentagon study concluded that more than half of the Defense civilian acquisition workforce would retire between 2005 and 2007. The report set off alarm bells, suggesting the loss of employees could lead to delays in delivering weapons to warfighters. The Defense Department inspector general said contracting reforms were already being hindered because so many civilians were leaving their jobs. Defense officials said the report showed the need for a more flexible human resources system to adapt to the department's swiftly changing needs.

But the report's dire predictions have not come to pass. "Clearly, we are not having the type of mass exodus" that was expected, says Richard Sylvester, deputy director of the Defense acquisition workforce. He says a renewed sense of patriotism since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the sagging stock market have led many of Defense's 132,000 acquisition workers, who range from contracting officers to physicists, to stay on the job beyond their retirement eligibility at age 55.

Sylvester says many of the workers, whose average age is 49, still are expected to retire soon, but at a slower rate than initially anticipated. Research shows that most workers who remain beyond age 55 do not stay more than two or three additional years. As a result, he says, Defense is working on borrowed time to ease the impact of the coming retirements.

Sylvester says pending legislation to reform Defense's civilian personnel system would go along way toward easing the loss of workers by giving managers more freedom to retain employees and recruit new ones. Even without the legislation, Defense is taking steps to rejuvenate its acquisition corps.

Better marketing of government work is one way. For example, the brochures federal recruiters from the Naval Air Station in Patuxent, Md., hand out at college career fairs have changed recently. Gone are the ones with white, middle-aged, male scientists on the cover. Instead, the latest glossy handouts have a picture of a 5-year-old girl throwing a paper airplane. The makeover is meant to underscore a larger message: Patuxent River, one of the Navy's top acquisition and research organizations, is a diverse, exciting and challenging place for young workers. "Where else can you work on the F-22 or the Joint Strike Fighter?" says Sylvester.

Even without major legislation, Defense is seeking to change its policies to make it easier to hire skilled workers away from the private sector at mid-career. For example, many acquisition management jobs require certifications earned from the Defense Acquisition University. Sylvester says Defense is considering ways to count commercial experience toward such certification.

Other steps the department is taking include cutting headquarters acquisition positions by as much as 15 percent in order to hire more front-line procurement workers, collecting lessons learned from acquisition experts before they retire, and expanding government-industry exchange programs for procurement experts.

Despite such initiatives, Sylvester knows there's one factor Defense cannot control--the economy. As it improves, he fears, the retirement rate will accelerate.

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